Erudite Aviators Provide Solace & Solutions

By Scott Spangler on June 5th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Image result for nothing by chanceLooking at the challenges aviators face foretells of a seemingly insurmountable struggle to sustain our beloved avocation that is, for a lucky few, also an occupation. What makes this situation worse is that most of these challenges pit aviator against aviator.

The summit of challenge mountain is the proposed privatization of ATC. Supported by airline aviators, the user fees that would support it would, it is safe to assume, eliminate the ticket taxes the airlines pay on each passengers base ticket, which does not include the plethora of additional fees. In its place, the airlines would add the ATC user fees to their ticket prices. Business and general aviators would have to make life-changing financial choices if they want—or need—to continue flying.

Other challenges are more insidious because they are unintended consequences of aviation’s technological solutions in its ceaseless quest to improve safety. Take, for example, FAA Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 17007, Manual Flight Operations Proficiency. It urges aviators to maintain and improve “the knowledge and skills” they first mastered as students, manipulating the stick and rudder for a safe flight.

Image result for stick and rudderThe challenge here is not mastering the necessary knowledge and skills. It is finding the appropriate balance between the contribution technology makes to safety and the aviators ability to realize when he or she needs to take over, and to have the current stick-and-rudder muscle memory essential for maintaining that safety.

When considering the logical and disparate possible outcomes becomes morbidly oppressive, I seek solace from the erudite aviators who live on my bookshelves. From them I intuit solutions to today’s challenges, should aviators today choose to make the changes necessary to achieve them.

To many, Nothing By Chance, Richard Bach’s 1969 book is a nostalgic tale of a group of aviators who spend the summer living the barnstormer’s life. But it is so much more, if one reads carefully. It shows how a group of aviators, with different needs, achieved a shared goal financed by an unpredictable number of $5 flights. Naturally, these humans had their disagreements, but in the end they worked them out to the benefit of all. A similar outcome is possible if the spectrum of aviators unite in opposition to a privatized ATC system funded by user fees and agree on possible solutions that benefit all of aviation, not just one of its communities.

Image result for artful flyingAny aviator who manipulates an airplane’s controls should sit down with Wolfgang Langewiesche at least once a year, just to remind themselves that the fundamentals of flight he analyzed in Stick and Rudder are universal to all fixed-wing aircraft regardless of size. Then sit down with Michael Maya Charles who melds hands-on manipulation with the human metaphysical factors that play a critical role in their acquisition, sustainability, and employment.

Beyond solace, spending time with these erudite aviators may also inspire solutions to the challenges that the industry—and its individual participants—today face. But they will not be explicitly clear on the page, they will grow in the reader’s mind, especially one prepared for the implantation of new ideas by a sufficient supply of imagination unbounded from what was and what is, freed to consider what could be. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Why America Reallocates Public-Use Airports

By Scott Spangler on May 23rd, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Hangar-4Public use airports are an essential (and underappreciated) component of America’s infrastructure. The current total, provided by the the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, counts 5,145 public use aerodromes. What’s really interesting about this timeline is the increase between 1980 and 1985, from 4,814 to 5,858 public use airports. The total dropped to 5,589 in 1990, the next stop on the timeline before the annual counts reveal a trend of small and steady decline.

The sudden increase in airports between 1980 and 1985 surprised me because it came after general aviation’s leap off the economic cliff in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Search as I might, I could not find a concise summation of why this period experienced a boom not unlike the increasing number of babies born after World War II. Until I find something more authoritative, I’m settling for the logical conclusion that airports aren’t born and don’t die overnight, so the boom was the result of poor timing and the interval of new airport gestation.

My research did reveal interesting examples of why airports die, and why new ones are born in this era of economic stasis for our infrastructure, either maintaining what exists or adding to it.

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Privatized ATC May Solve Pilot Shortage

By Scott Spangler on May 8th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

pp_dc_body1This headline isn’t as strange as it sounds when you consider that the airlines are the leading promoters and supporters of privatizing air traffic control, and that the managers have often been at odds with the laborers (like pilots). Mix this with the travails of another “government corporation,” the U.S. Postal Service, and the growing capabilities of the Next Generation Air Transportation Systems digital data communications systems, and you have the makings for some dystopian devil’s advocacy.

Behind all of this is the acceptance that business leaders, regardless of the industry involved, are guided by one thing—the bottom line. Depending on their morals, they’ll do anything to increase that number. And one way to increase that number is to reduce or eliminate things that subtract from it. Take, for example, the “ticket tax” they pay, which supports the air traffic control system.

That tax is based on the base fare passengers pay for that ticket. It does not take into account all of the fees passengers pay for things that used to be wrapped up in the ticket price, things like baggage. Those fees go directly to the airlines’ bottom line. Privatizing ATC is the next step in this process. It will replace the ticket tax with ATC user fees, and we all know who pays an airline’s fees, don’t we?

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When Pilots Back Themselves Into a Corner

By Robert Mark on May 6th, 2017 | Comments Off on When Pilots Back Themselves Into a Corner

When Pilots Back Themselves into a Corner

When I was still writing for AOPA Pilot, Turbine Edition Editor Tom Horne always surprised me with his relentless interest in some of the funny and strange things I’ve experienced in my career as a professional pilot. “Did I ever tell you about the time my co-pilot and I had to push our Citation out of the corner we’d wedged ourselves into?” I once asked. So of course I just had to write it up. This story, Taxi Troubles, originally ran in the Turbine section of the February 2017 AOPA Pilot.

A Long, Long Time Ago

Flying on-demand Part 135 airplanes can be a tough life, with pilots often spending their day waiting for that firefighter-like call to swing into action—calls that always seem to happen near the end of the day. We fly in all kinds of weather, often into unfamiliar airports at a passenger’s whim, but this Uber-like service is why we exist.

I’d just walked in my back door under a beautiful starry sky, so all seemed right with the world when the pager went off around 11 p.m. The scheduler said Tommy and I were headed out in the company’s new Citation S/II—new to this company, at least. The trip would be easy: Depart the Waukegan, Illinois, airport; drop one passenger at an airport in central Michigan; and come home. A quick weather check said it would be as beautiful a VFR night in Michigan as it was in Chicago.

Since the trip over was my leg and I’d already checked weather, the only thing left was a look at our airport destination, where our passenger said his wife would be waiting in her car on the ramp. It was a single-runway, non-towered field, so it should be easy in and easy out. Climbing away from Chicagoland, we could already see the lights lining Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. In the descent, Tommy tried calling unicom, but since it was nearly 1 a.m., no one answered. The winds were calm, so I chose to land straight in on the nearly 5,000-foot Runway 9.

Tommy clicked the microphone a few times to make sure the runway lights stayed on, which we needed since there weren’t any other lights even remotely close to the airport. The touchdown was hard, characteristic for me in this airplane. The S/II had a different wing that the other Citation IIs we usually flew, and I just never seemed to get the hang of the darned thing. Next time, I guess, I thought as I turned south off the active runway.

After much grunting and shoving and heave-hoing, though, the darned thing started to move…slowly.

After much grunting and shoving and heave-hoing, though, the darned thing started to move…slowly.I left all the landing and taxi lights on and slowly came to a stop on the taxiway. This place was dark—really dark. No taxiway lights, just green reflectors sticking up on plastic poles to outline the way. “We’re taking it easy,” I said, with Tommy quickly nodding.

“There,” he said. “Aren’t those headlights?” Almost in response, the headlights flashed. I flashed the taxi lights in response, feeling confident now on where we were headed. There wasn’t much room to turn the aircraft, but I managed to get it pointed outward from the ramp before I shut down. Our passenger was eager to be gone and we were soon watching his car’s taillights disappearing down a dark road. I used our big Maglite for the walk-around as Tommy climbed into the left seat for the trip home.

With both engines spinning, Tommy taxied out. We’d decided to depart west, which meant simply reversing our taxi back in—which is, of course, what we thought we were doing. But with nothing except reflective tape on some sticks, the going was slow. I looked down at the approach plate to be sure I had the correct frequency dialed in to call the center after takeoff. When I looked up, I almost felt a bit of vertigo, since the path ahead looked different from what I was expecting. It looked like buildings appearing in the lights.

“What the heck is that?” I asked Tommy.

“We’re OK,” he said. “I remember seeing that coming in.” I think the quizzical look was still plastered on my face as the airplane stopped. “Uh, oh,” he said. Definitely buildings. We’d made a wrong turn somewhere and were now pointing down a narrow taxiway with T-hangars on our right. As we both looked at the buildings around us, Tommy did the smart thing by setting the brakes and shutting down. Climbing out with the Maglite again, we looked ahead and saw the dead end. The taxiway was maybe half again as wide as the Citation’s wide gear stance.

There was no clear way to turn the airplane around—at least, no way we could see where we wouldn’t fall off the edge of the taxiway. So much for getting into bed early, I thought. Of course, we also had no idea how we’d even call anyone for help at 1 a.m. We looked at each other as we circled the airplane again, flashing the Maglite in all directions—as if, by chance, it might point us toward the way out. No such luck. “Well,” Tommy said, “We could try a three-point turn.” I looked at him a bit quizzically.

“We start up, then I crank in a hard left turn with you outside. All you do is stop me before I go off the pavement. Then just before I shut down, I’ll cock the nosegear full right.”

“And then we do what, exactly?” I asked.

“We push it back until we’re almost off the pavement going backwards.” It was about 1:30 a.m. in Michigan, but this kind of made sense to me. A few minutes later, we tried the turn, me acting as ramp agent. When Tommy shut down and exited the airplane, we walked over to the back end to see how far we could push the jet and stay on the pavement. We figured about 10 feet, so I marked a spot by tossing my hat down under the belly, so we could both see it while we were pushing.

Even light on fuel and with no people aboard, pushing a Citation is nothing like shoving around a 172. After much grunting and shoving and heave-hoing, though, the darned thing started to move…slowly. We saw our mark and stopped pushing the jet. It stopped almost immediately. Tommy hoped back in, fired up the right engine, and repeated the three-point turn procedure. We almost made it out on the first try, but we had to shut down and push one more time.

Finally, as we taxied out, it became clear how we missed the turn. But I was more amazed at how we’d gotten out of this mess. For months after that, when Tommy and I would see each other in the crew room, one of us would ask, “Been to Michigan lately?” and laugh.

Quality or Quantity: How Do You Assess Your Flying Life?

By Scott Spangler on April 24th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Image result for snjAs a word merchant, I’ve learned a lot by reading obituaries because the good ones succinctly review a life by sharing its telling accomplishments, whether the subject’s notoriety is universal or unknown. The really good ones interview the subject before their passing and share what’s important to the individual. This got me thinking, how would I assess my flying life?

Thinking of all the pilots I have known and met over the past 40 years, most of them, it seems, summarize their individual flying life by quantity. Who hasn’t heard the hangar flying boast of those who claim to have flown so many thousands of hours and/or so many different makes and models of aircraft? These are good metrics of aviation experience, I guess, but they don’t tell me a lot about the pilot’s personality, what defines this flying life.

Honestly, I don’t know how many hours I’ve logged as a pilot or how many different makes and models I’ve flown, and I really don’t care. Because I learned early that tomorrow is never guaranteed; as I do every day, I wake up, I assess my flying life on quality.

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Thoughts on United Airlines Latest PR Mess

By Robert Mark on April 13th, 2017 | Comments Off on Thoughts on United Airlines Latest PR Mess

Thoughts on United Airlines Latest PR Mess

Seems that United Airlines, our home town airline here in Chicago, has managed again to create another PR mess for itself. When I was still teaching media and communications at NU, I could only hope for situations like this to relate to my grad students about how companies should not treat customers. And yet, here it is once more.

What is this magnetism United seems to have for being able to take an already ugly customer service mess and turn it into chaos? Sure an airline has the right to bump people, but it was the methods United used to bump passengers that got them in hot water the other day, not just their policies.

I was invited on Tuesday to chat with our local NPR host Tony Sarabia about this mess, so give it a listen and tell me what United should have done, because after all, this is just my two cents.

Click here for WBEZ’s Morning Shift for Tuesday April 11,2017.

Rob Mark, Publisher

@wbez, @unitedairlines, @jetwhine

The Reality of General Aviation Nostalgia

By Scott Spangler on April 10th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

Image result for meigs field closedBasking in the warm breezes of Wisconsin’s first coat-free day of spring, I suffered a pang of aviation desire. It would be a nice day for any general aviation pilot to go flying. But in the hemisphere that surrounds my deck the only sights and sounds of flight were the robins feasting on sunbathing worms. This brought to mind all of the empty airports I visited last year on my Route 66 adventure, and for the first time I made a connection between them and the empty, boarded-up building on the Main Streets of their respective home towns. Like many, I have nostalgic memories for both, but one cannot exist without the other, and the revitalization of either seems slim these days.

Looking forward, I wonder for how much longer these forlorn airports will survive? If the small town doesn’t have the population and jobs to support Main Street businesses, there will not be any aviation-minded individuals around to support the hometown airport. Time will come when the town’s revenues will fall short of funding the services that the entire population expects, and the airport will cease to be a line item.

Other airports survive only because they are supported by Essential Airport Services funding, but the budget proposals floating about reallocate these funds to more politically advantageous recipients. Add the uncertain future of the contract tower program, and working with rough round numbers, it is not implausible that 20 percent or more of the nation’s public use airports will go the way of Meigs Field. Some may suggest that they will survive as destinations for business aviation, but if there are no businesses on and around Main Street, why would business need to fly in there in the first place?

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Aeronautical Decision Making and ‘Being Wrong’

By Scott Spangler on March 27th, 2017 | Comments Off on Aeronautical Decision Making and ‘Being Wrong’

Image result for being wrong bookAeronautical decision making is a key ingredient in aviation safety, but I’ve just finished an excellent book that has revealed a side to this important topic that’s little discussed. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz takes an in-depth look at why humans find being right so gratifying, and how maddening it is to realize we’re wrong, and wrong so often.

This is not a book for pilots, and the author doesn’t offer any aeronautical examples. But as an aviator, on almost every page I could relate the her examples to aviation, pilots, and the decisions she makes. Perhaps the most important advice she gives, which applies to all human endeavor, is this: “Regardless of age, we are more alert to the errors of others than our own” and “pointing out the errors of others give those people little reason to change their minds and consider sharing our beliefs.”

She starts by exploring human factors and error studies and makes the point that not all errors are the same. Being wrong on where we left our car keys, she says in one example, is not the same as being wrong on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. She then goes on to show that “error is the borderland between vigorous mental life and dementia,” that error is vital to the process of creation and invention, and that error is often the start of adventure (good and bad). Read the rest of this entry »

2020: General Aviation’s Coffin Corner?

By Scott Spangler on March 13th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Image result for coffin cornerIn aviation “coffin corner” is where bad things come together. I learned the term long ago, reading about the U-2, in Francis Gary Power’s book, if I remember correctly. When flying at the upper edge of its envelope, a single digit separated the redline speed that could pull the wings off the fragile bird, and the stall speed, the minimum velocity needed for those wings to produce lift. While I understand the aerodynamics involved, the concept of flying with so little margin for error still boggles my mind.

Aviation, it seems, is facing another coffin corner, one best defined by a year: 2020. It may well be the apex union of challenges that might be inscribed on general aviation’s seed shrouded memorial marker at some forgotten, deserted airport. Mention the year 2020, and most in aviation immediately think of the January 1, 2020 deadline for being equipped with ADS-B. And that is, indeed, a challenge for all aircraft owners, one that poses a terrible decision: upgrade or sell the airplane on or after the deadline for some giveaway price.

This is where the other wall meets the mandate to form the corner. 2020 will begin the final stretch of the next presidential election, and what happens between now and then will surely play a huge role in the decisions every general aviator must make. Where to start?

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The Few. The Proud. The New Student Pilots

By Scott Spangler on February 27th, 2017 | Comments Off on The Few. The Proud. The New Student Pilots

only-commitments-2On the road to our favorite brewpub for date night I noticed a new billboard for the U.S. Marine Corps: “We don’t accept applications. Only commitments.” The smallest member of America’s armed forces, it meets its recruitment goals by challenging volunteers to meet the Corps’ uncompromising standards. In other words: Not everyone can be a Marine. Becoming one is not easy. Do you have what it takes? Can you sustain your commitment when the rigorous training seems beyond your capabilities? Reflecting on my experience with the Corps during my naval service and after it, the Marines steadfast challenge to meet its standards might work equally well in recruiting new student pilots.

As the declining trend of student pilot starts suggests, and the roughly 80 percent who decide to pursue a less challenging activity before they solo or earn a certificate confirms, becoming a pilot is not for everyone. History suggests that making the training easier by eliminating its more challenging aspects—spin training and the recent amendment of how to teach slow flight come to mind—perhaps taking a lesson from the Marines will reduce the number who quit before certification. And in the process it might improve efforts to reduce accidents resulting from loss of control.

Posing this challenge will affect students and their instructors because the latter will have to change the way they teach.

Teaching maneuvers separately and with a rote by-the-numbers setup and recovery does not prepare students for real world situations. There are certainly many ways to accomplish this, and I had the good fortune to fly with teachers who employed several of them. One of the most effective was to discuss a situation on the ground, say a spin resulting from an uncoordinated turn from base to final, and then to make the point in the airplane. What made it effective was the true point of the teacher’s demonstration.

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